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Last year 'Bama led the SEC in total offense, piling up 434 yards a game. Against Florida's admittedly tenacious defense, it got just 304. Tide quarterback Gary Hollingsworth, the conference's Offensive Player of the Year in 1989, completed a so-so 14 of 28 passes for a paltry 162 yards and looked lost. He threw three interceptions, all of them to Gator safety Will White, who said Hollingsworth made his job simple. "He really looks at his receivers," said White.
Hollingsworth's second completion to White is what really did in Alabama. With 3:35 left in the third quarter, the Tide had rolled down to the Gator 14 and looked to be heading for a touchdown that would give it a commanding 17-7 lead. But then Hollingsworth, looking at tight end La-monde Russell almost constantly from the time 'Bama left the huddle, tried to throw him the pass. "It was easy to intercept it, really," said White later.
Still, White was dropped on his own two-yard line, meaning that the Florida offense would be operating from decidedly disadvantageous field position. On first down, Gator quarterback Shane Matthews dropped back into the end zone, planted his right foot and heaved the ball as far as he could. It landed in the soft hands of wide receiver Ernie Mills for a 70-yard gain. Six plays later, Florida settled for a 33-yard field goal, which evened the score at 10-10.
Just 1:43 after that, Alabama's Stan Moss, who had dropped a snap from center in the Southern Miss game, stood ready to punt from his own 15. The snap arrived only momentarily before corner-back Jimmy Spencer did. Barely brush blocked as he sliced in from the right side, Spencer got both hands on the punt. "I was standing in front of him when he tried to kick it," said Spencer after the game. "He was kind of fumbling with the ball, and I got to thinking maybe it was a trick play."
It wasn't. The blocked kick popped 12 feet into the air and floated down into the waiting hands of cornerback Richard Fain, who was standing in the end zone. Fain, who spent 10 days vacationing during the summer with fellow Fort Myers, Fla., schoolboy pal Deion (Prime Time) Sanders, is called Cable Ready by his friends. This, however, was a Prime Time play. Suddenly, Florida was ahead 17-10, having scored 17 points in slightly more than eight minutes. From that point on, the Crimson Tide's punchless offense could only muster another field goal.
Alabama has plenty of excuses for its lackluster start. The best one is that tailback Siran Stacy, the SEC's leading scorer last year (18 touchdowns), is out for the season after tearing ligaments in his right knee against Southern Miss. But Crimson Tide fans are into winning, not excuses. Some consider it an omen that Stallings's career coaching record—with Texas A&M, the Cardinals and Alabama—is 50-81-2. Says Stallings, "I don't think it's very good, either."
What is good is the magic Florida coach Steve Spurrier—he's such a magician that last season he led Duke to its first bowl appearance in 29 years—is working with the Gators. He won the Heisman Trophy as Florida's quarterback in 1966 and is still the biggest sports hero ever to come out of the school. Most important for the university's reputation, he is said to be squeaky clean.
Former coach Charley Pell, who was fired in '84, besmirched the football program during his six-year tenure, and the NCAA ultimately found Florida guilty of 59 recruiting violations. The Gators were on NCAA probation for three years, '85 through '87. Pell's successor, Galen Hall, also got into hot water with the NCAA. Before resigning under pressure last October, he admitted to having paid two of his assistants a total of $22,000 in bonuses from out of his pocket between '86 and '88. The NCAA is expected to hand down its verdict on this violation and a number of others, including several committed by the Florida basketball program, as early as this week. Additional sanctions are considered very likely.
Overriding all else in Gainesville has been the serial slayings of five students in late August. No one had been charged by week's end, and the town remained manifestly fearful. Said Spencer after Saturday's game, "The players, like everyone else, were completely depressed. So we just tried to stick together. But I admit it has been very hard to keep our minds on football."
Nonetheless, Spurrier has done a masterly job of installing a sophisticated passing offense—and calling the plays for it. Matthews, who was only the fifth-string quarterback last spring, is extraordinarily calm but throws an extraordinarily soft ball. He must develop zip. With Spurrier, plus two other former standout Florida quarterbacks, John Reaves and Kerwin Bell, on the staff, Matthews says he has no excuse for not improving.